Former House Majority Leader S.C. Rep. Jim Merrill submitted a resignation letter to the House Speaker’s office on Thursday, a day before a hearing during which he might plead guilty in an ongoing public corruption probe.
In the letter, provided to The State newspaper by the House Speaker’s office, Merrill said his resignation would take place Friday at 10 a.m.
That is an hour before a hearing for Merrill, a Berkeley County Republican, at the Richland County courthouse.
Special prosecutor David Pascoe refused comment on any details of the 11 a.m. hearing. His office on Thursday morning announced the time and place of the hearing and revealed it was about Merrill but said nothing further.
Merrill’s lawyer, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, R-Charleston, told The State newspaper he had no comment.
Merrill, 50, was indicted in December on 30 criminal charges of various ethics violations and misconduct in office dating from 2002.
Guilty pleas in state court are usually the subject of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations between prosecution and defense and are only revealed at a public hearing.
Another possibility in the case is that Merrill might be making some kind of motion at Friday’s hearing.
State Judge Robert Hood is presiding.
House Speaker Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, also resigned his seat in 2014 when he pleaded guilty to using campaign money for personal expenses.
Since the indictment, Merrill has been free on $146,000 bond.
Merrill is one of South Carolina’s most prominent Republican lawmakers.
As a consummate insider with knowledge of how money fuels politics in the Palmetto State and ties to the workings of the Legislature and lobbyists, Merrill is in a position to give prosecutors plenty of information about how to convict his fellow lawmakers who might have committed criminal offenses.
In 2016, Merrill led the primary campaign of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in South Carolina. In the State House, before he was suspended from office, he was a member of the powerful S.C. House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the first draft of the state budget.
Merrill’s political experience includes being press secretary for the late U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence, R-Lexington, and political director of the S.C. Republican Party from 1992 to 1998. Elected to the House in 2000, Merrill led the House GOP Caucus from 2004-2008. He was re-elected in November without opposition.
The 30-page indictment against Merrill accuses him of misconduct in office as far back as 2002 as well as a series of ethics violations, such as taking money to influence legislation and using his office for financial gain.
Altogether, the indictment accuses Merrill of illegally using his office to pocket at least $1.3 million, either directly or through his business, Geechie Communications.
Merrill also failed to disclose receiving payments of more than $673,000 from trade, advocacy and political groups in violation of state ethics law, according to the indictment.
If convicted, Merrill faces up to 66 years in prison, Pascoe has said.
Merrill was one of two lawmakers named in a confidential section of a 2013 report by the State Law Enforcement Division. The report was mostly about Harrell, but it contained eight confidential pages about other possible corruption at the State House. It named Merrill as well as Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who was indicted by Pascoe on misconduct charges in July. Quinn, too, has been suspended from office.
This spring, Pascoe indicted Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, on misconduct charges. He has been suspended from office.
Also said to be a potential target of Pascoe: longtime political consultant Richard Quinn of Columbia. In March, Richard Quinn’s Columbia offices on Gervais Street were raided and numerous documents and computer hardware and data seized.
The FBI and the US Attorney’s office in Columbia are also involved in the probe.
September 2014: Former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, is indicted on charges of using campaign money for personal expenses, filing false campaign disclosure reports and misconduct in office.
October 2014: Harrell pleads guilty to state charges of misusing campaign money and resigns, agreeing to a plea deal that requires him to tell federal and state authorities of any illegal activities by others, including lawmakers, that he knows of.
December 2016: S.C. House Majority Leader Rep. Merrill is indicted on 30 charges of misconduct in office and ethics violations.
March 2017: S.C. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, is indicted on three charges – two counts of misconduct in office and one of use of campaign funds for personal expenses. Courson and his attorneys have filed two challenges to the charges. One asserts that Pascoe has no authority to pursue anyone not named in a secret portion of a SLED investigative report on Harrell; Courson was not named in the report. The other challenges the legality of Pascoe’s use of the common law charge of misconduct in office.